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Better than nothing?

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At a recent hearing by the Senate committee on migrant workers, senators expressed disbelief that all 1,278 Filipino workers who were charged criminally in the first half of 2022 ended up convicted and serving prison terms, leading Senate Majority Leader Joel Villanueva to say it showed government’s “sloppy” defense and poor legal assistance on their behalf.

“This is not acceptable. These are facts.  These are figures that we have in our hands. If we cannot get anyone acquitted, then what the hell are we doing here?” Villanueva told officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs at the inquiry.

The Senate panel was tackling three bills which seek to expand the government’s legal assistance program for overseas Filipino workers.

According to the DFA’s own data, 883 of the convicted OFWs are serving are serving fixed-term sentences, while 63 are serving life prison terms, whereas 332 have already served their sentences. The department further reported that 837 cases occurred in the Asia-Pacific region, 288 in the Middle East, 110 in the Americas, 40 in Europe and three in Africa.

Eduardo De Vega, DFA undersecretary for migrant workers, conceded that the agency had been struggling to get cases against OFWs dismissed. He claimed the record for acquittals was low because OFWs resorted to settlements with their accusers.

When told to hire top-caliber lawyers, which came with the implication that those engaged by the agency lack competence, the reply of De Vega went, “Again, the position of DFA is that: bottom line, [OFWs] get legal representation which is better than nothing.” He also pointed out that there were cases in which OFWs were complainants that ended well for the Filipinos and there were also cases where they were able to secure a lighter penalty.

If it’s any consolation, none of the cases cited by the DFA involved capital punishment and there was no OFW on death row who was executed last year.

A Department of Foreign Affairs of a country that deploys significant numbers of workers to foreign lands should be able to provide quality services and assistance for the people we like to call our “bagong bayani” whenever its convenient. But when their presence in foreign lands becomes inconvenient, either for them or for our government, it would be much better if what we can provide isn’t better than nothing.*

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June 2024
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